Monday, September 5, 2016

The Great Out-There by Jonny Blostone

The story starts at the end. I’m on a Kuwait Airways flight from New York to London sprawled across an empty row on a Boeing so old it sounds in pain trying to stay aloft. I’m half asleep but cold from the air conditioning. And nervous, and sad, after everything.

I’ve been travelling the world for a year. Last August I upped sticks for Beijing suddenly, leaving my City job and my confused, heartbroken girlfriend in a cloud of quarter-life-crisis dust.

The language barrier proved almost physical in China. Non-communication leant oppressively on everything, complementing the grey Soviet-style buildings; and Beijing’s humid avenues are so wide, so filled with smog, that I rarely saw the other side of the road. Catching the right train, or finding the few remaining alleys of traditional Chinese character, is physically and mentally exhausting. But oddly I, standing a foot above the suffocating but ever-curious crowds, had never felt so free.

I edged down the coast to Qingdao where pollution makes the beach orange and the sea black. Breathing was difficult. Rotting fish and exhaust fumes cloyed at my lonely self. Outside the Tsingtao brewery, supping unpasteurised beer from a shiny bag, locals relentlessly and unashamedly took my picture. I wondered about doing this trip alone, and about home.

Next, the canals of Suzhou, down which an old lady punted me while singing, and the twee wooden charm of old China glided by.

Then Shanghai, big and brash with spots of colonial familiarity down by the water. Locals were confident and fashionable and in the streets steam from Sichuan hot pots blurred neon signs above, which said ‘look at us, we’re the future’.

The metroscapes gave way to the pepper pot mountains of the Li River. Snack and beer vendors on the dusty bank were laid back, and a bamboo raft took me down towards Vietnam, where things were suddenly quieter, and there was blue sky.

I’d shed 15 pounds in China and barely spoke, but good food and company were easily come by here. Unspoilt tropical communities and beaches balanced perfectly with a loose tourist infrastructure that made it easy to get around. Things were cheap, companions from hostels surprisingly unpretentious, and the weather was glorious. I was relaxed, carefree and things from the life I’d left behind were stacked at the back of my mind, in a room I rarely visited.

Limits and concerns fell away as I tourist-crossed the jungles and the Mekong into Cambodia. This place was laid back and friendly. But one needn’t step far from the bars and imported hedonism to see deep scars. I thought about my own scars, how lucky I was that they couldn’t begin to compare. Bullet holes in masonry, shallow pits in fields, and a thread of uncertainty through everyone, unsure who they really were, and where they’d really come from.

In Thailand the noise and optimism of the gap-year crowd leaked into almost every place, but the country’s beauty wouldn’t yield. After the head-pounding booze-blur of Bangkok, I moped-pootled through Ko Pha Ngan’s lush forest, to emerge at the brow of its highest hill. Golden sunset lit the ocean and white sands below. The last residue of work-based hypertension took off on the breeze, past an elephant plodding by in the other direction.

I pushed on to Kuala Lumpur – a now familiar East/West collision of temples, noodles, glass and steel – from where I flew to Australia.

Melbourne was a flat San Francisco with a double shot of Britishness. Over-cool students and twenty-somethings with a good sense of humour rattled around a tram network being naïve and progressive. It was squeaky clean. Swanky coffee was everywhere, good and expensive. The weather and my mood were very changeable. Why had I left her? What was she doing now, and with whom?

Feet itched. I drove a clapped-out Ford from Adelaide to Brisbane, via the Great Ocean Road, Canberra, the Blue Mountains and Sydney, with a couple of 20-year-olds – one unsure about everything, but happy; the other sure about everything, because he said he knew Jesus. I felt old. The coast became less beautiful, so I went inland, and saw kangaroos on Christmas Day drinking from the Mighty Murray.

I flew across the sea, and back fifty years, to New Zealand. Among the fenced-off ruins of quake-struck Christchurch my heart was sore and I felt the creep of melancholy, wondering about her, about who I was and where I was going. I took almost empty buses round both islands. At the Pacific the sky was grey and the little roads empty. I had fish and chips in a pub to avoid the rain. The mountains were breathtaking. I walked on the surface of a glacier, battered by a biting wind.

At Queenstown, nestled between imposing crags and peaks, amid fresh lake air, noisy bars and extreme sports clubs that dripped with youth and desperation to seize the day, I realised I had run away as far as I could. Unless I floated off into space, to move on now could only mean to start heading home.

I crossed the dateline and touched down in Vancouver scantily dressed in late spring snow. Cycling through Stanley Park, a clarity matching the mountain air bathed my brain. I had to go back to her. She was what I’d left, but not why I’d left. The thought of returning to a life without her induced a sudden panic.

But people, rightly, don’t hang about when you self-indulgently introspect at their expense. As I bussed down the coast, through rainy Seattle, dreary Portland and snowy Tahoe, I saw signs at a distance that she was moving on. The desert-mountain-ocean roads of breezy California were lost on me as a vague desire to see the USA fell away in favour of an acute need to get back, and win her back.

Three days on a Greyhound from Vegas to DC. Unnerving occurrences, from an alcoholic soiling himself in the next seat, to a wide-eyed junkie trying to sell me the jeans he was wearing at a 2 a.m. service station stop. The scratched and scabby underbelly of the American road mirrored my fevered, sleepless desperation to re-London, tell her I was wrong, that I’m sorry. Recalling the comfort of an office schedule, sharp suits in cocktail bars, weekend visits to parents in the country, shared slumbering Sundays… Oh to learn the loveliness of what I had by throwing it all away in a catapult around the globe!

I’ve always wanted to see New York. Surely the only place to rival London as a place to maybe live. But by the time I arrive, and as the shaky plane lifts above the skyscrapers, reflecting new summer light across Central Park, I feel I’m rather done.

I’ve asked her to meet on Millennium Bridge. I can’t imagine why she would. I deserve her not to, but there’s always hope. To appreciate what you had and where you were by leaving it all behind to see the great out-there. The world stretches out before me, London hones into view through the window, and hope holds that the story starts at the end.


Jonny Blostone, 30, grew up in Essex, England and now lives in London with his wife Rebecca. He works in financial PR and writes for fun. He'd like one day to say he's visited every country in the world, mainly to impress people. He'll probably do the most dangerous ones last.

Judge's Comment: In this whirl around the planet, we soul-search with our writer, who learns so much about himself and the world on his travels. 'I thought about my own scars, how lucky I was that they couldn't begin to compare.' We root for him as he flies home, that his story may start 'at the end'...and we look forward to the sequel.